April celebrates National Autism Awareness month, and Special Olympics Southern California serves quite a few athletes who are glowing examples of how intellectual disabilities do not define their lives.
SOSC also works with Unified partners who are just as impactful and help promote an inclusive environment the organization encourages. Among them is Walker Grossi, a 10th grader at Lompoc High School who will compete at the 2018 Special Olympics USA Games in Seattle alongside Unified basketball teammates with and without intellectual disabilities.
Special Olympics and connecting with individuals with intellectual disabilities are not a new venture for Walker – his 12-year-old brother Garrett has autism. Walker and Garrett do a number of things together, such as play video games and film videos.
“I can kind of bring that (personal experience) into the picture,” the 16-year-old said.
Walker was approached by his basketball coach about participating alongside Special Olympics athletes during his freshman year. The idea of using basketball as a common bond intrigued him, and he plans to stay involved through his senior year.
“I’ve done some research in the past about it. I’m like, ‘Oh, this is really nice,’” he said.
“It’s given me an experience, not only interacting with the athletes, but interacting with them through my favorite sport.
“You want to give them a chance. Once you really get to know them, they’re really awesome people.”
Last month, Walker and his teammates traveled to Long Beach for USA Games Training Camp. They not only practiced together, but the team also met the other athletes selected as part of the Southern California delegation.
Moments as simple as hanging out in the hotel allowed for chances to connect and grow together, he said. The trip was a warm-up, of sorts, for the Special Olympics USA Games, which will include a flight and week together as a delegation made up of nearly 70 athletes.
“It makes us more comfortable with each other,” Walker said.
At the training camp, Walker roomed with Special Olympics athlete Tyler Rainwater, 18, and the two have known each other prior to their connection with Special Olympics. Walker recalled initially recognizing Tyler as part of the percussion section in the school’s band.
When he found out Tyler was part of Special Olympics and played on the same Unified basketball team, the transition and formal introduction was smooth.
“Getting to know each other a lot is pretty cool,” Tyler said of his friend and teammate. “This guy is awesome.”